Not so long ago, breweries that barrel-aged their beers sent employees down to Kentucky’s bourbon country to buy used barrels from distillers. Under federal regulations bourbon whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak containers. Those used barrels had to find a new home.
Since then, the popularity of barrel-aged beers has caused a spike in demand for bourbon barrels. And brewers are experimenting with wine, rum, and even tobacco and hot sauce barrels.
Enter the barrel brokers. Breweries rely on brokers because they vouch for the barrels’ provenance of the barrels, inspect them for leaks and other flaws, and handle the logistics of transporting them from distant parts of the country—even from overseas. Small breweries are especially reliant on brokers, who can fill their orders for small quantities and hard-to-find barrels.
Barrel brokering is as much an art as a science. The biggest challenge is coordinating the empty dates of the barrels with the breweries’ fill dates. Changing tastes are another challenge. Brokers are not only looking for the barrels breweries want now, but also try to anticipate what barrel-aging trends are on the horizon.